Pubs: A glass divide

Downton Abbey might have been all about the Victorian class system but it’s the local where Britain’s obsession with one’s social standing was defined.

London’s hostelries once had multiple spaces, which sometimes were extremely small, each one denoted by the price you would pay for a drink and the status of customer with whom you might be rubbing shoulders.

[U]ntil the 1950s when the ‘Big Six’ brewers started to subsume local pubs into their brand, customers would pay a price that reflected the plushness of the room and expect to be shielded by etched or frosted windows from the glaze of passers-by or fellow drinkers which were in a different social class. The idea of financial, social and sexual segregation was an entrenched feature of pubs until well after the Second World War.

A variety of names were given to reflect the class of customer, or cost that patrons might expect to pay in these rooms. At the bottom is the public bar, often referred to as simply ‘bar’ with a more utilitarian feel, serving cheaper priced tipples and predominantly a male preserve, with easy access to a gents toilet, while for the ladies it would often entail a journey to another area of the public house. While, just occasionally vestiges of a ‘ladies only’ bar survive as in The Glass and Mitre, Bayswater.

Further up the pricing range of beverages or drinking rooms available was the saloon; lounge; smoke (or smoking room); the ‘select’ room was, as the name implies, a cut above with its own counter to the servery; a sitting room, where one might relax and summon a waiter by means of a bell, the only authentically bell-pushes in London can be found in The Forester, Ealing; private bar; vault (often a public bar); snug (small and cosy); commercial room (for commercial travellers); porter room; music room; and tap room (often curiously far removed from the place where ale was drawn).

But, uniquely in London, these different rooms with their own functions often evolved in to public houses with extraordinarily tiny drinking compartments. One survivor is The Barley Mow in Dorset Street [below], which retains two boxes giving the impression of Georgian box pews in church.


Other remarkable survivors of screened compartments are The Argyll Arms, Argyll Street and The Prince Albert, Formosa Street a sole example of screened compartments ranged around a peninsular servery.

Unlike today, when drinking habits are on display with customers spilling onto the pavement, while the public house has to employ security guards to shepherd the drinkers within the allotted area, Victorians were reluctant to be seen partaking of alcohol. Etched, and later frosted glass would be employed to form a screen between the world of the pub and passersby, a fine example is The Albert in Victoria Street [featured image above].

Snob screens were a feature of upmarket Victorian pubs giving privacy to their ‘better’ customers, creating a sense of physical and visual separation from the serving staff. These glass ‘windows’ could be revolved giving access to the bar staff to order one’s drink. A sole survivor of this, the clearest demarcation between the have’s and the ‘have not’s, is The Prince Albert, Maida Vale [below].


As drinking habits have changed to a more rowdy and less intimate space to enjoy a tipple the demarcation between social classes of drinkers have been swept away and many of the glass divides lost.

In 1991 a National Inventory of historic pub interiors was begun. It was expected that 500 examples worth retaining would be found from the 60,000 pubs in Britain at that time. In the event only 200 were identified, just 0.5 per cent of the nation’s pub stock.

With public houses closing on a weekly basis, the recent fire above The Old Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street, the earliest example of a 17th century interior, was of some concern, for in London the published inventory of historic pub interiors of 2004 identified only 133 pubs worthily of inclusion.

These surviving interiors which would indeed have been the norm, now their rarity makes them very special survivals of a lost age.

Photos: Interior of Argyll Arms Michael Flynn (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Featured image: Interior The Albert Brian Micklethwait

6 thoughts on “Pubs: A glass divide”

    1. According to Geoff Brandwood’s findings in the publication: Brewery History, Number 123, Summer 2006, page 117 are that many London pubs have a peninsula-like servery protruding into the drinking area. Originally these would have been surrounded by a series of compartments. The arrangements crucially the Prince Alfred, Maida Vale, probably refitted c.1898, are a unique survival. Thanks Al for your comment.


    2. Ah, I see. The implication is that it’s the various rooms & bars in the paragraph above that are unique to London.

      Perhaps the sentence should read “But uniquely in London these different rooms with their own functions often evolved in to public houses with extraordinarily tiny drinking compartments…” Thanks Gibson for your comment.


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